Amanda O’Brien and her partner help sustain local agriculture—and eager tastebuds—with their delectable rhubarb wine and hard cider.
“It was the right thing, the right product, the right time,” says Amanda O’Brien of her decision to plunge head first into the rhubarb wine business, despite a full professional and personal plate. Co-founder and marketing director of eighteen twenty wines, as well as director of business development at flyte new media, organizer of Social Media Breakfast Maine and a mother, O’Brien knows a little something about instinct.
She and her business partner, winemaker Pete Dubuc, have been friends since collaborating in radio 13 years back. Both continue to have full-time jobs (Dubuc works for Planet Dog), even while immersing themselves in what has skyrocketed from an experimental business venture to agricultural game-changer. While O’Brien trusted that “rhubarb is super cool and grows like a weed,” she and Dubuc had no idea how high the demand for their delectable product would be, and so quickly. While participating in the business accelerator program Top Gun in 2017 through the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development (MCED), O’Brien took part in a challenge to simulate a pitch for her product to a real grocery store—Rosemont Market and Bakery—in class. While the staged pitch went well, O’Brien and Dubuc were shocked when the same store called them just days later, requesting stock of their Rha wine. That summer, with the help of a feature in the Portland Press Herald, their wine was featured in 25 local stores and quickly sold out.
Exciting as this was, it also felt “uncomfortable,” says O’Brien. “Because we don’t have any more of it. Rhubarb comes up in spring, and it takes eight weeks to make the wine.” Holding off eager stores is just one of many trials that O’Brien views as grist for the mill. Their biggest challenge? “Time. We do everything the hard way. We’re trying to bootstrap so we can invest back in ourselves.”
Eighteen twenty wines was established with a mission to help farmers. Rhubarb, a crop that you can just “put over there [in your field] and don’t have to take care of,” was an easy sell to two Maine apple orchards, Doles Orchard in Limington and Spiller Farm in Wells, which agreed to house a row of rhubarb on their properties. “They thought we were nuts until we showed up and bought thousands of pounds of rhubarb from them the next spring,” says O’Brien. The fact that rhubarb is harvested in spring provides much-needed funds to farmers, O’Brien says, and “helps them operate in a diversified way.” In a stroke of fate—which has since become eighteen twenty wines legend—Doles used the proceeds earned from this rhubarb crop to invest in an irrigation system, which they claim saved their u-pick strawberry fields from last year’s summer drought.
With their Doles and Spiller partnerships in full swing, the natural next step for O’Brien and Dubuc was cider. Ohm’s Law, a dry, still cider, aged in cinnamon whiskey barrels, mirrors Rha’s subtle, placid tanginess and rounds out their offerings while popularizing a more European style of alcoholic beverage. O’Brien soon hopes to arrange a group trip to Spain for wine lovers in Maine who are interested to learn the origins of this cider-making style.
O’Brien is quick to focus the spotlight on the village of people around her who nourish eighteen twenty wines: those mentors and tinkerers of various kinds who help shape and sustain the brand. Her business partner, Dubuc, is the winemaker, handling every step of the process, from harvest through processing, freezing, aging and beyond. River Drive Cooperage provides used barrels for aging each vintage. Josh Fisher, a friend of O’Brien’s and an accomplished artist, creates feature art for the labels. “I tell him, let’s say, I want a winter label, but not Santa Claus, and he comes up with this,” says O’Brien, turning a bottle to reveal the undeniably wintry yet fresh image of a mysterious green man on a cool blue background, with a swath of rhubarb leaves for a beard.
Within her wide professional network, O’Brien seeks business advice from mentor Don Gooding of MCED and vino counsel from Erica Archer of the wine education startup Wine Wise. “I can go to Erica and say, ‘Tell me if this is garbage. Thinking of risking life and limb for it.’” For support, O’Brien’s personal network is as sustainable as her wine. “I am the lucky winner of the best friend in the world. She pushes me, for sure. And my parents are amazing. They help with my kid, my house—all my things.”
With so much hanging in the balance, O’Brien recognizes the Portland community as central to her success as an entrepreneur—and her sanity. “This town is great for people wanting to help. You feel crazy—this is super hard—but you realize that others are doing it, too.”
eighteen twenty wines
Visit the tasting room at 219 Anderson St., Portland (open Thursday through Sunday) and look out this spring for a fresh batch of eighteen twenty wines. The wines are also sold at a couple dozen shops around the state. For a complete list, go to www.eighteentwentywines.com/where-to-buy
Chelsea Terris writes plays, short stories, and freelance journalism. She lives with her family in Portland, Maine.